About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Currently reading The New Religious Intolerance by Martha Nussbaum

Actually, I'm re-reading this book. I read it for the first time a few weeks ago, having received a review copy from The Philosophers' Magazine. I've decided I need to give it a second reading before I can write a decent review of it.

So, a review is on its way (i.e. on its way to be written). The book is really about intolerance of Islam, something that concerns Nussbaum greatly, but it has some useful discussion of broader issues relating to freedom of religion. There is some good material, but Nussbaum really bends over backwards to be accommodating of Islam and its canons of conduct. I am actually on her side in opposing comprehensive bans on wearing the burqa in public, but is there really nothing problematic about the burqa? Nothing? Not even when parents require little girls to wear the damn thing?

For more, you'll need to see my review in TPM.


Mike Haubrich said...

Regarding the burqa. There are several muslim families in my apartment complex, and it really makes me sad to see the girls playing outside in the hot weather all covered up and it makes me angry that they watch their brothers swim while in "modest clothing" on the deck of the pool.

Russell Blackford said...

I feel much the same way. It gets hot here in summer, and most people wander around the university campus, the local shops, etc., quite lightly dressed. Teenagers will pop into the shops from the beach still wearing little more than their swimming costumes. Even I wear shorts around the campus or the shopping mall,or wherever I might go.

But there are a lot of strict Muslim women in the neighbourhood and on campus who wear the full burqa (or some variation) amidst the glorious sunshine. They are students from the Middle East and/or the wives of students from the Middle East.

I don't feel disgusted by them - as Nussbaum seems to think I do - but sorry for them for having to put up with that stifling black clothing in the summer heat ... and for missing out on the simple pleasures that go with living in a summery, beach-oriented city like Newcastle.

Glenda Larke said...

One of the most extraordinary assertions of many modern Muslims is that women should cover their heads or veil their faces. There is nothing in the Q'ran that mandates this. It is all an attempt (largely successful) to enforce or encourage cultural/tribal restrictions on women by calling it Islam. The only such stricture can be found in a "mursal" hadith ... a weak verse of traditional sayings that has no real Islamic back-up.

In other words, as far as Islam is concerned, a woman is urged to be modest in her dress, but nowhere is she specifically told to cover her hair or her face, except in that very suspect hadith. What we are looking at in veiled women, or women covering their hair, is a choice on the grounds of modesty, or a cultural prohibition (perhaps even one enforced by the husband/father/brother), but it cannot be argued on the grounds of religion.

And you could be bombarded by trolls because of this comment...

Russell Blackford said...

Probably not, Glenda. I.e., we probably won't be bombarded by trolls. We mostly get a civilised bunch of people commenting here - any trolls who turn up will probably be in the minority.

I agree that the basis in Islamic holy texts for wearing the full burqa or equivalent with face veil is weak when viewed from outside. And of course, most Western, Indonesian, etc., Muslim women don't wear it. OTOH, we do have to acknowledge that the women who wear it believe this is mandated by their religion. I don't think we can simply tell them that their interpretation of Islam is, like, theologically "just wrong". I don't think interpretations of religions can be right or wrong in that sense, though they can perhaps be orthodox or heterodox - the various materials used within a religious tradition are always going to open to numerous interpretations.

Glenda Larke said...

Ah, but many Islamic scholars argue my exact point. (Believe me, it's not something I arrived at by myself!)In other words, there are many viewing it from within, and wondering just why so many can say "Islam says X about the veil", when there is no scholarship to back up the assertion. And yes, you are right. Women who wear it voluntarily do believe it is mandated. I have a problem with that, I will admit, especially when I see my sisters-in-law suffering just with wearing a hijab in the tropics, and suffering guilt if they cannot.

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, I realise that many Islamic scholars say that - I wasn't kind of accusing you of making it up. :)

Actually, I'm not sure we're disagreeing. The fact remains (and I think you agree with this?) that others take a different view. Even if one view were more historically orthodox, that doesn't take away that the historically heterodox position is a sincerely-held religious belief on the part of those who hold it. This then raises questions about how to treat that belief.

Glenda Larke said...

Yeah. Nothing is simple, is it?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

It's been a while since I've posted here, but I've been following your blog. This post compelled me to want to at least drop in and express my take on the issue. I'm a little perplexed and more than a little troubled that someone of Nussbaum’s caliber would focus on intolerance of Islam in the manner you’ve suggested. This, in particular, worries me:

“but Nussbaum really bends over backwards to be accommodating of Islam and its canons of conduct. “

While I’ve never felt much reverence for any religion, Islam strikes me as, in many of its present incarnations, especially worthy of criticism, and it concerns me that framing important, contemporary issues about Islam in this way could place undue focus on critics of it while, in so doing, deemphasizing or even dissuading people from voicing legitimate criticisms.

I am hoping Nussbaum’s work doesn’t turn out to be this way. It bothers me when criticism of Islam is painted with a broad brush of simple-minded intolerance or xenophobia. Certainly a lot of it does fit this description, and I am not on the side of bigoted nationalists opposing Islam based on worldviews which are themselves worthy of condemnation. But when the focus is on concern over intolerance of Islam, and the discussion doesn’t also include concern over intolerance from Islam, critics end up being portrayed as the “bad guys” and Islam is portrayed in an unjustifiably positive light.

That being said, I am interested in your upcoming review, as I won’t have the time to read the book myself any time soon.

Regarding the matter over burqas, I am somewhat ambivalent. I certainly don’t endorse discrimination and coercive prohibitions on most religious practices, but there are some restrictions I suspect may justify state intervention. I don’t believe religion justifies special exclusion or consideration from the law above and beyond what any sincerely held set of beliefs would justify, “religious” or not.

In the case of withholding medical treatment from children on religious grounds, I’ve had some people tell me that a parent has a right to refuse vaccination, blood transfusions, and so forth for their children on religious grounds, but I don’t see how such actions don’t constitute neglect.

A tougher concern is the matter of home schooling. I’ve had discussions with many people in the US who tell me that parents have a right to home school their children and indoctrinate them into their personal religious beliefs, even if this results in distorted education that impairs the child’s comprehension of science and other disciplines. I am not sure I’d go so far as to say it should be illegal for a parent to, loosely speaking, raise their child to be Christian or Muslim (even though I find this morally objectionable), but I do agree that there are no justifiable religious reasons, or any other reasons, for limiting or warping a child’s education. I agree with the court’s decision in Canada, for instance, which recently refused a parent’s request to excuse their child from courses which taught them about world religions. Here is one article criticizing the decision:


They comment, “To me, what this means is that in Canada, the state decides what children will believe, not the parents. The state will tax parents in order to pay for government workers and government programs. And the state will use these government entities to make the children believe in the state’s values.”

Unknown said...

(Continuing from the previous post, I hit the character limit)

Even if this characterization were accurate, it isn’t obvious to me that the implied alternative, that parents have a right to decide what children will believe, is any more acceptable, simply because *nobody* should be deciding what children believe in a narrow sense. Children should be exposed to a broad education that provides free access to the best materials we have to let them draw their own conclusions, and to the extent that that position (that children should be given a broad, quality education) is itself a belief that would need to be mandated by the state to prevent parental noncompliance, I am in fact fine with the state forcing parents to require their children to have such an education.

All of this is to preface my remarks on wearing burqas. My concern is this: should parents have a right to make their children wear this sort of clothing? As far as I know, burqas are often worn as early as the onset of puberty or even earlier, so anyone feel free to correct me if I am mistaken about this. Even if they are not, however, this raises the broader question of what rights parents have to instruct their children in religious beliefs to begin with.

Put in terms of rights, I believe a limited case can be made for a conflict between rights of religious practice and child rights. I believe this conflict is often dismissed outright, ignored, or given inadequate focus. It’s not as obvious to me that a person’s religious liberty to engage in any given practice as an adult also extends to how they treat the children they are raising. Does Nussbaum address this at all? And do you express your views on this in print anywhere?

Leaving the issue of children aside, I still have the strong inclination to regard the burqa as, intentionally or not, a tool of oppression against women, one that promotes a perception of women that is inconsistent with progressive, liberal attitudes. I’m not disgusted by or afraid of women wearing burqas, I pity them, and I pity the backwards thinking culture, with all its prudish, ignorant notions about sexuality, its backwards notions about women’s liberties, and in general, its archaic attitude towards a large swath of social behavior that I think renders the sort of cultural attitudes that coincide with the type of mentality that endorses the use of burqas, or even merely fails to object to them, unambiguously bad for society.

Even if a good case cannot be made for banning burqas, I believe those of us who wish to live in a world where women are not oppressed, and anyone worth talking to I expect to hold such a view, ought to be permitted to, and encouraged, to publicly criticize those who endorse wearing them, and they should not be discouraged as being xenophobic or prejudicial against Islam on the whole. I’m dubious of this tendency for some liberal-minded thinkers to focus on Muslims as the oppressed only, even when there is legitimate criticism to be made of their treatment in the Western world, and to downplay very real concerns with practices within Islam and its cultural concomitants.

Unknown said...

Martha Nussbaum (recipient of +30PhD) argues for equality in rights; the state shouldn't impose discriminatory laws-on minorities-that are based on very weak arguments, which Nussbaum demantes.